The Knuckle Buster

Black and white sketch illustration of a closed fist about to hit a man in a baseball hat.

Southern Exposure

Magazine cover with photo of multigenerational Chinese family celebrating birthday against a blue background

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 4, "The Chinese: 100 Years in the South." Find more from that issue here.

When the garden had been planted and the field crops were in the ground, thousands of tiny germs permeated the air of Pearisburg, Virginia, entering the brains of our ultraconservative citizens, and causing a high fever that lasted until the Giles County Baseball Championship was decided. Tensions ran high. Tempers were short, as was money. But I know of nothing — with the exception of the fire at Miller's lumberyard — that did more to solidify the people of our small town. 

Everyone pulled together. Meals were placed in the warming closets of Majestic ranges while the best of our young athletes were recruited from farms, businesses, and the nearby tannery. Under the semi-professional eye of Doc Booth, our local pharmacist, six brand new baseballs were bought each year. These were reserved for the home games as each town was required to furnish the balls on its own diamond. 

In the event that a bat had been broken the year before, a new one had to be purchased. It was a matter of pride that we never enter a game with less than three bats. When a new player was recruited, one of the nine uniforms we owned had to be adjusted to fit his frame. 

Each spring a town meeting was called by Herb Lawson, our mayor and justice of the peace. The Circuit Court chamber was used, and it was usually filled to capacity. Here the price of a bat and its brand name were thrashed out thoroughly. Committees were set up to appoint the official gate-keeper, a man who had to be honest to the core because each two-bit admission fee had to be accounted for. 

Others were appointed to construct the backstop; still others were lined up to visit the Giles County fairground board of directors to obtain permission to use it as a playing field. Most of the directors were present at the meeting and could have made their usual affirmative decision then and there. But that was not the way it was done in Giles County. 

After these matters had been chewed over and over until all the taste had been removed, the meeting was adjourned and we were officially on the road to another season of baseball. 

While the fairgrounds had its own grandstand — a skeleton of timbers over which two one-by-ten planks were nailed for seats — it was located in such a position as to make it useless to accommodate baseball fans. A dirt track ran in front of the grandstand. It was on this stretch that equestrians presented their high-stepping horses in show classes. It was also used in sport by other horsemen who, with smooth-tipped lances held eye-high, galloped furiously before the spectators, trying to ensnare small rings that hung from wire on posts along the way. Across the track from the grandstand was the bandstand where Willie Marrisong, our postmaster, and six of his old cronies huffed and puffed into their brass instruments. Thus, each baseball season a new backstop had to be constructed on the other side of the large tract of fairground land. It also had to be removed before the county fair started. 

While we had no Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or even a Pete Rose, we did have heroes who loomed just as large in our minds. One of them was my Uncle Charlie. 

Uncle Charlie — affectionately known as Cannonball Charlie — was never scouted by the Big Leagues, but, in my opinion, he would have been another Dizzy Dean. He was tall and gangling — in his late twenties at the time — a righthanded hurler who could really pop the mitt. He knew nothing about sliders or change-up pitches. He just threw the ball as hard as he could and tried to get it over the plate. His rising in-curve was a thing of beauty and his out-drop was like a rainbow over the proverbial pot of gold. 

There were four small towns in our county — all with populations of between 500 and 1,000. Since our town was the county seat, we were the most hated by the rival teams. All of the villages turned out good clubs every year, but when it came right down to the wire, the championship game was usually between the Pearisbuig Bulldogs and the Narrows Pirates. 

Narrows was a more progressive town than ours. Their merchants showered them with goodies. They suited up 12 men, owned a dozen bats, and each player had a ball glove. Why, they even had a batboy — their mayor's youngest son. 


The air cracked with pent-up tension and nerves were stretched tight as a snare drum when we met one particularly memorable year for the final championship game — which, because of the usual fisticuffs, was always billed as "The Knuckle Buster." 

My Uncle Charlie was on the mound at the fairgrounds that day, a wad of Scrap tobacco in his mouth large enough to choke a horse. I say he was on the mound. Actually, there was no mound. We called it a pitcher's box; the toeing rubber was nothing more than a short piece of two-by-six sunk into the ground. Abe Whittaker — a tough, rawboned, eagle-eyed man, said to be able to whip his weight in wildcats — stood behind the pitcher, where his loud voice yelled out balls and strikes. He was also the base umpire. Abe was imported from another county for the occasion, so there could be no question of partiality. 

Uncle Charlie threw his three warmup pitches to Dyke Dixon, our catcher, who stood behind the board home plate. Each time Uncle Charlie popped his fast one into Dyke's mitt, the small wiry catcher seemed to slide back a foot. 

A couple of hundred spectators, from all over the county, were either crowded around the U-shaped backstop — made of five tall poles connected with chicken wire — or strung along the first and third base lines. They came on horseback, in wagons, and some in T-Model Fords. The sheriff, his deputy, and the town constable were also present. They had brought along all their handcuffs and an ample supply of "hobbling" string. 

The first four innings turned out to be a pitcher's duel. There wasn't a single home run hit by either side. Because there were no warning paths or fences to clear, any home run had to be an inside-the- parker. The ball had to be knocked so far into the outfield that the fielder could not throw it back, or that it became lost in the weeds. In the latter case, the runner walked around the cement-sack bases while the game was halted and everyone looked for the ball. 

As the game progressed, Doc Booth could be heard yelling at our batters: "Keep that grain up! We don't want no broken bats!" The grain of the wood showed up in the logo burned into the bat by its manufacturer. When the brand name was held so the batter could read it, the bat supposedly hit the ball "with the grain," making it less susceptible to breakage than batting "against the grain." 

With the fifth inning score 6-5 in our favor, Uncle Charlie faced Rags Johnstone, a left-handed hitter, the Pirate's power slugger. With the count at 2 and 2, Uncle Charlie let fly one of his famous out-drops. Rags seemed mesmerized. He appeared to lean into the swooping missile, which smacked him just above the ear. A knot the size of a goose egg followed the ball off his head. He fell like a poled ox! 

Rags got no personal sympathy from his home supporters. Only the catcher paused a moment to see if he was still breathing; then he, too, joined the melee that was taking place at the pitcher's box. 

The Pirate fans had Uncle Charlie down and were pounding him something fierce. With tears streaming from my eyes, I grabbed a baseball bat and ran to his aid. I popped quite a few shins before a large hand came out of nowhere and sent me sprawling. They couldn't do that to him! Not my Uncle Charlie! 

After the initial shock of the attack on Uncle Charlie, our townspeople came to the rescue. Abe, the man who could whip his weight in wildcats, wisely retreated to second base. Bloody noses and black eyes were plentiful before the sheriff shot a couple rounds from his single-action Colt .45 into the air. 

The four culprits who had started the fracas were quickly handcuffed to the chicken wire on the backstop. Someone dug out a pint of moonshine, splashed a little on Rags's goose egg, and forced a few swallows down his throat. Rags staggered to his feet, wobbled down to first base, and the game got under way again. 

However, after that beating — during which he swallowed the Scrap — Uncle Charlie did not feel so good. He seemed to lose his stuff. After walking four men in a row, he had to be replaced by Hank Harlow, who was also not to be sneezed at as a pitcher. 

But the momentum, as they say today, had switched to the Pirates. They were charged up like a bull facing a red flag. Our second baseman was quickly spiked by a Pirate in a close play at third, and one of our substitutes had to be called in to finish the game. Of course this held up the action while our player headed for the barn to don the injured player's uniform. 

When play resumed, we got in a few good licks of our own. By the time the game was over, the backstop was lined with perpetrators either tied or handcuffed to the chicken wire. 

Needless to say, it was not one of our good days. Our Pearisburg Bulldogs lost by a score of 19-18 — a tight one, for sure. And when the sun hid a shamed face behind the Appalachian mountains, disenchantment, like a thick pall, hung over the town of Pearisburg. 

But that was by no means the end of the rivalry. The hot stove league would really crackle during the long winter months. We could hardly wait to get at those Narrows Pirates next year for another "knuckle buster."